Bradford City 1
Pyke 29, Tavares 35
By Jason McKeown
655 days have passed since Jake Reeves last lined up for Bradford City. It has been a long and painful sojourn, physically and mentally. But for Reeves to lead out the Bantams as captain tonight was a significant personal milestone.
It was not exactly the most fitting of occasions. A sparse Valley Parade crowd of just 761 hardy souls. Another record low crowd for City, in a competition that lower league fans increasingly have little time for. But from those who did turn out, Reeves was nevertheless afforded the warmest of receptions on the coldest of November nights.
You’d scarcely have believed he’d been out so long. Reeves was the best player on the park. Sat just in front of the back four, he pinged passes from all angles around the pitch, setting up attacks and driving the team forward. He assisted City’s opening goal and also hit the bar. He was full of tricks and ran the hard yards off the ball.
There was no fear or tentativeness either. Reeves was not adverse to going in for 50-50 challenges. And, even after getting an unjust booking, continued to be physical. It was a welcome reminder of what a quality player he can be.
So much has changed in those 655 days since Reeves trudged off after 62 minutes of a horrendous 4-0 home defeat to his former club, AFC Wimbledon. Including caretakers, City are now on their seventh different manager. They’ve slumped from League One play off contenders to falling back to the bottom tier. Not a single player who started alongside Reeves against Wimbledon that day is still at the club.
655 days ago, Reeves had been subbed off to sarcastic cheers from a disgruntled Valley Parade crowd. After signing the summer before, Reeves had made a terrific start to life in West Yorkshire – only for his form to badly fall away. He was particularly wretched that January day, unable to make even the simplest of passes. But as he suffered public humiliation in getting the early hook to jeers, no one could have forseen the long and torturous road ahead of him.
Reeves has been to hell and back, but it is to Gary Bowyer’s immense credit that his number eight has finally been able to make this much anticipated comeback. Rightly or wrongly, the noises around David Hopkin suggested the-then City manager’s patience for Reeves had exhausted. Public statements weren’t exactly glowing in support. “Sometimes you have to push yourself, test yourself and play. Maybe play through a wee bit of pain,” were Hopkin’s comments about Reeves in October 2018. Just before Hopkin left in February, he revealed he still hadn’t even seen Reeves train.
Bowyer’s words about Reeves, after taking over as manager, were more positive and conciliatory in tone. He got Reeves back involved by asking him to scout Scunthorpe on his behalf, just before City played them at the end of last season. There were words of encouragement during pre-season, and no signs of impatience when Reeves has continued to remain unavailable early doors.
Making Reeves captain tonight was a masterstroke and somehow typical of a manager who always seems to favour the arm-around-the-shoulder approach with players. It is a leadership philosophy that has helped to turn around the dreadful performances of so many of last season’s squad. And it is working with Reeves too.
If Reeves can gradually build himself back up to the player he looked to be when he first signed, Bradford City’s midfield is going to become even stronger. And with the injury problems still a big concern, the sight of Reeves back in claret and amber is a major boost. Just like against Wimbledon 655 days ago, Reeves was subbed in the 62nd minute. Only this time, it was deservedly to a standing ovation.
Reeves’ return and performance was the highlight of a strange encounter. City bossed the game for long periods against a very junior Rochdale side, but were ultimately beaten and bowed out of the competition at the group stage for the second year in a row.
Qualifying for the next round had already looked a tall order. City had to win by three clear goals, but at least began with every ambition of achieving the improbable. With Reeves pulling the strings, the home side played to a high tempo and pushed blue and black shirts back.
They went 1-0 up on the quarter hour mark when Reeves floated over a free kick that Tyler French stabbed home for his first City goal. Eight minutes later, Kelvin Mellor was fouled in the box by Aaron Wilbraham, and the three-goal victory looked on.
Reeves pushed his claims to take the penalty, but in the end agreed for Aramide Oteh to assume responsibility. Sadly, Oteh’s spot kick was tame and easily saved. Still when Reeves hit the bar a minute later, City continued to look focused and purposeful.
Yet amazingly they quickly fell 2-1 behind. First a loose pass allowed Rekeil Pyke to strike powerfully into the roof of the net. George Sykes-Kenworthy got a hand on it but couldn’t prevent the equaliser flying in. Then Paudie O’Connor somehow allowed Fabio Tavares in behind, and he finished past a hesitant Sykes-Kenworthy.
Rochdale – who knew a four-goal victory would take them through – should have got a third on half time. Sykes-Kenworthy made a meal of collecting a low shot but just about blocked and cleared a rebound effort.
The half time score was rough on City, and they came out of the traps in the second half with renewed vigour. Bowyer’s decision to swap the sides of the pitch Zeli Ismail and Omari Patrick were operating on paid off, as the Bantams produced several good chances. Patrick had a very good 25-minute spell either side of half time where he produced several brilliant crosses and some fancy flicks.
A City equaliser during this stage of the game would have surely led to a rampant victory, but Rochdale hung on and ultimately grew more resolute. The Dale keeper Jay Lynch made a string of good saves. Arguably City’s best chance was a brilliant piece of interchange between Ismail and Reeves that left the latter with a clear sight of goal. But his shot was tame.
After Reeves was understandably taken off, City badly faded. Oteh had to be substituted too, as he had worryingly begun to hobble. With no other fit strikers, Bowyer has to protect Oteh for next week’s FA Cup replay with Shrewsbury.
The sight of Danny Devine coming on to replace Oteh prompted some groans, but pragmatism had to override throwing the kitchen sink to stay in an unloved competition. When Patrick – who was put down the middle after Oteh went off and struggled – was replaced by centre half Ben Richards-Everton, the towel was effectively thrown in. A front three of Ismail, debutant Chris Taylor and Richards-Everton was never going to score the four goals needed.
Reeves aside, it was a night of mixed performances from City. The back four struggled, with Mellor’s form continuing to decline and Paudie O’Connor looking worryingly below his best. It was good to see Jackson Longridge back, but on this evidence Connor Wood won’t be worried about the possibility of losing the left back slot.
In midfield, Callum Cooke was again fairly average. Has the mistake against Port Vale – plus red card against Exeter – dented his confidence? Alongside him, Jermaine Anderson started badly and seemed to get worse. So many times in possession he took the wrong option. And he is too often guilty of slowing down attacks. When all midfielders are fit, Anderson will be nowhere near this team. He simply isn’t good enough.
There will be no tears shed over the cup exit, and the way City lined up during the last 20 minutes demonstrated Bowyer had ruthlessly written off the game and the competition. And so all eyes quickly turn to next Tuesday’s FA Cup replay. City are two home games away from a potentially lucrative third round tie. That is where the focus outside of the league campaign has to be.
The seven-day rest will hopefully give Oteh time to recover from any knock he picked up here. Give James Vaughan more space to get back to fitness. Allow Harry Pritchard to fully recover from his illness. Maybe even Shay McCartan might be back too.
And Bowyer can also go into the game with Reeves very much in his selection thoughts. Hopefully his problems are behind him. For after his impressive performance here, it’s unlikely to be another 655 days until Reeves’ next appearance.